Monday, June 29, 2020

Booknotes: America’s Buried History

New Arrival:
America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War by Kenneth R. Rutherford (Savas Beatie, 2020).

From the description: "Modern landmines were used for the first time in history on a widespread basis during the Civil War when the Confederacy, in desperate need of an innovative technology to overcome significant deficits in materiel and manpower, employed them. The first American to die from a victim-activated landmine was on the Virginia Peninsula in early 1862 during the siege of Yorktown. Their use set off explosive debates inside the Confederate government and within the ranks of the army over the ethics of using “weapons that wait.” As Confederate fortunes dimmed, leveraging low-cost weapons like landmines became acceptable and even desirable."

For a long time the standard work on the Confederate use of torpedoes (as land and sea mines were called back then) was Milton Perry's 1965 book Infernal Machines. Since then the topic has been broached on a number of occasions in the literature, mostly as parts of larger studies (a recent example being Mark Ragan's excellent Confederate Saboteurs: Building the Hunley and Other Secret Weapons of the Civil War) or in reference-style works such as the Herbert Schiller-edited volume Confederate Torpedoes. The goal of Kenneth Rutherford's America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War is to provide readers with a multi-faceted overview of the subject.

Most Civil War students are at least aware of Confederate general Gabriel Rains's pioneering work in developing torpedo weaponry in North America (and Savas Beatie, the publisher of this book, also released in 2017 a short history of the topic titled Gabriel Rains and the Confederate Torpedo Bureau). As Rutherford recounts in his book, explosive devices developed by Rains and others "saw extensive use in Virginia, at Port Hudson in Louisiana, in Georgia, the Trans-Mississippi Theater, during the closing weeks of the war in the Carolinas, and in harbors and rivers in multiple states. Debates over the ethics of using mine warfare did not end in 1865, and are still being waged to this day."

In the book, Rutherford, "who is known worldwide for his work in the landmine discipline, and who himself lost his legs to a mine in Africa," aims to "demonstrate how and why the mines were built, how and where they were deployed, the effects of their use, and the reactions of those who suffered from their deadly blasts."

Friday, June 26, 2020

Booknotes: Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes

New Arrival:
Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 by Michael G. Laramie (Westholme, 2020).

At least when it came to the publication of detailed book-length studies, the military history of the Civil War in the Old North State stagnated over the decades following the Centennial release of John Barratt's now classic overview The Civil War in North Carolina. Though works of merit occasionally popped up (the best being Richard Sauers's unsurpassed history of the 1862 Burnside Expedition), intensive coverage of the campaigns and battles fought in the state slowly but steadily took off only after the 1996 publication of Mark Bradley's wonderful Bentonville study Last Stand in the Carolinas. Since then nearly every important operation has received standalone attention (one example of a remaining gap being Foster's 1862 Goldsboro raid). Perhaps now is a good time for another major synthesis to update Barratt. 

Michael Laramie's Gunboats, Muskets, and Torpedoes: Coastal North Carolina, 1861–1865 isn't quite that (as its title states, it focuses on the coastal plains where most the action occurred), but the regional treatment is comprehensive (from Butler's 1861 barrier islands expedition through the final link up with Sherman's advance after the capture of Wilmington). I like what I've read so far after sampling the first couple chapters.

From the description: Laramie's study "chronicles both the battle over supplying the South by sea as well as the ways this region proved to be a fertile ground for the application of new technologies. With the advent of steam propulsion, the telegraph, rifled cannon, repeating firearms, ironclads, and naval mines, the methods and tactics of the old wooden walls soon fell to those of this first major conflict of the industrial age. Soldiers and sailors could fire farther and faster than ever before. With rail transportation available, marches were no longer weeks but days or even hours, allowing commanders to quickly shift men and materials to meet an oncoming threat or exploit an enemy weakness. Fortifications changed to meet the challenges imposed by improved artillery, while the telegraph stretched the battlefield even further. Yet for all the technological changes, many of which would be harbingers of greater conflicts to come, the real story of this strategic coast is found in the words and actions of the soldiers and sailors who vied for this region for nearly four years. It is here, where the choices made—whether good or bad, misinformed, or not made at all—intersected with logistical hurdles, geography, valor, and fear to shape the conflict; a conflict that would ultimately set the postwar nation on track to becoming a modern naval power."

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Review - "American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History" by Daniel Miller

[American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History by Daniel J. Miller (McFarland, 2020). Softcover, 397 photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:viii,476/533. ISBN:978-1-4766-7726-2. $95]

It's been said that any individual holding a great artifact collection of historical significance has an unspoken obligation to permanently document it in some distributable form for the wider public and posterity. Taking that wise counsel to heart is Daniel Miller, a retired law enforcement professional with a massive collection of Zouave photographs and printed ephemera. His book American Zouaves, 1859-1959: An Illustrated History is a photographic encyclopedia of American Zouave units organized between the end of the late antebellum era (when Elmer Ellsworth's Chicago Zouave Cadets swept the national imagination) through the middle of the twentieth century. By the latter period, the forces of National Guard standardization finally ended the wider Zouave phenomenon.

The stated purpose of Miller's Zouave study is "to offer a visual glimpse and written record of these long forgotten military units to provide collectors and historians with a reference aid in identifying the surviving images and historical artifacts of these units" (pg 2). All of the images presented in the book, from photos to "patriotic envelopes, cigarette cards, ballroom invitations, woodcuts, and lithographed song sheets," are part of the author's personal collection. According to Miller, song sheets rate among the most historically useful sources as they often include images of Zouave companies based on photographs, with color information provided directly from the men in the unit.

Attached image or not, the unit encyclopedia, which includes both military and non-military Zouave squads, companies, battalions, and regiments of different races and ethnicities from 41 states and the District of Columbia, is incredibly comprehensive. Unit entries, organized in chapters by state, range from well-documented military units that fill several pages in the book to those that have so little information about them that there's the possibility they didn't even exist. Complicating matters are the companies that called themselves Zouaves but didn't wear Zouave uniforms or the ones that wore the uniforms and didn't call themselves Zouaves! The author's work is not finished either, as the volume contains an extensive late chapter including a large number of so far unidentified Zouave images. The overwhelming focus of the book is on the Civil War period, but the uniforms remained popular among National Guard units and a great many post-war "civil organizations, youth cadet companies, political marching groups, and quasi-military groups."

The captions applied to the volume's nearly 400 images (41 of which are in color) often include a great amount of detailed commentary, and unit entries themselves typically offer some initial organizational information accompanied by extensive uniform descriptions. Some of the best sources for the latter are newspaper reports, which are often quoted extensively in the text though the author appropriately cautions the reader about their veracity. It is apparent that the volume does not aim to provide extensive service histories (even for the famous units), and early chapter discussions of late antebellum "Zouave Fever" in the U.S. as well as the history of the French Zouave combat units that inspired it are also quite brief.  Some readers will wish Miller had included more of this background information but space considerations in an already very large book probably entered into play.

The book notes the seeming incongruity of normally pragmatic American volunteers embracing such an exotic model with bright colors that made inviting targets on the battlefield (indeed, Miller cites some contemporary pushback against the craze in the newspaper media). However, as most Civil War readers are aware, French military history and practices over the first half of the 1800s heavily influenced all aspects of the American military establishment and the added romanticism of the Zouaves easily overcame any misgivings. The author confirms that early Union Army martyr Elmer Ellsworth's much celebrated role in exciting a national embrace of the Zouave phenomenon has not been exaggerated. Miller also does try to clear up what he sees as the popular misconception among Civil War writers that Zouave uniforms rapidly declined into near universal disfavor, with nearly all units freely adopting more conventional appearances relatively early in the conflict According to the author's research, Zouave units often went to great lengths to try to preserve their distinctive uniforms, and it was mostly outside factors (such as material shortages) that forced many units to adopt mixed uniforms and other more expedient alternatives.

Though apparently outside the scope of the book, one wishes Miller had devoted at least some space to a brief discussion of whether Civil War Zouaves conducted themselves on the battlefield in any unique ways. He does reproduce in full an extensive newspaper article that describes in some detail the reporter's observation of a new Zouave regiment's drilling exercise, one that included the "Zouave Rush" frequently mentioned in the secondary literature.

Daniel Miller's exhaustive documentation of his Zouave image collection, expanded to include a descriptive organization and uniform register of all known Zouave units of any kind over a century-long period of American history, represents an invaluable reference tool for subject enthusiasts and serious researchers alike. With the publication of this volume, Miller's self-imposed collector's obligation to the public can be regarded as redeemed in full.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Booknotes: Hellmira

New Arrival:
Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY by Derek Maxfield (Savas Beatie, 2020).

After an incredibly prolific period when it seemed like no month passed without the publication of at least one Emerging Civil War title, I believe this is the first series installment to appear in around a year (the next most recent being the New Market entry). In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY, Derek Maxfield examines the improvised POW camp (only in operation during the final year of the war) that more than earned its nickname of "Hellmira."

From the description: "Hastily constructed, poorly planned, and overcrowded, prisoner of war camps North and South were dumping grounds for the refuse of war. An unfortunate necessity, both sides regarded the camps as temporary inconveniences—and distractions from the important task of winning the war. There was no need, they believed, to construct expensive shelters or provide better rations. They needed only to sustain life long enough for the war to be won. Victory would deliver prisoners from their conditions." Before that final victory arrived, very nearly a quarter of the 12,000 Confederate prisoners housed at Elmira during its year of operation died.

As most readers are aware of already, Elmira is sometimes regarded as the North's Andersonville. "In the years after the war, as Reconstruction became increasingly bitter, the North pointed to Camp Sumter—better known as the Andersonville POW camp in Americus, Georgia—as evidence of the cruelty and barbarity of the Confederacy. The South, in turn, cited the camp in Elmira as a place where Union authorities withheld adequate food and shelter and purposefully caused thousands to suffer in the bitter cold. This finger-pointing by both sides would go on for over a century."

Not interested in engaging in that kind of back and forth, Maxfield instead "contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure."

As expected, the book possesses an abundance of photographs and other illustrations. The popular appendix section, a series mainstay, includes a driving tour of Elmira; a profile of John W. Jones (a former slave who was sexton of nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, where the Elmira dead were interred); an account of the Shohola Train Wreck of 1864 that killed 48 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards; the story of prisoner Berry Benson's escape from Elmira; a look at Mark Twain's past and present associations with the city of Elmira (he's buried at Woodlawn Cemetery) and Elmira College (which has a Center for Mark Twain Studies); an overview of Andersonville; and finally, in common with most series titles, a preservation essay.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Book News: Violence in the Hill Country

It seems like it's been weeks since a new upcoming title of interest has popped up on my radar. As surely every regular reader knows by now, any book related to Civil War-era events west of the Mississippi grabs my attention. Nicholas Keefauver Roland's Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era (University of Texas Press, Feb 2021) will join a recent spate of titles melding Civil War history with western borderlands studies. From the description: "The nineteenth-century Texas Hill Country functioned as a kind of borderland within the larger borderland of Texas itself, a vast and fluid area where the slaveholding South and the nominally free-labor West collided. And as in many borderlands, it was a place marked by violence, as one set of peoples, states, and systems eventually triumphed over others."

Seeing Roland's title, two other books on the topic of Texas frontier violence during the Civil War immediately came to mind. Gregory Michno's The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (Caxton, 2011) emphasizes the general ineffectiveness of U.S., Confederate, and Texas state military and paramilitary forces in protecting isolated settlers from Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche raiders. The best scholarly book on the topic of western Texas border security during the Civil War is still David Paul Smith's Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1992). Roland's upcoming book will have a different emphasis on the theme of borderland violence. It aims to "trace the role of violence in the region from the eve of the Civil War, through the crisis of secession and the Indian wars, and into the Reconstruction period, ultimately showing how patterns of violence both defined and revealed the priorities of white settlers in the Hill Country--most importantly, the advancement of market integration and state-building in the broader Southwest."

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Review - "Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia" by Steve Norder

[Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia by Steve Norder (Savas Beatie, 2020) Hardcover, 2 maps, 36 illustrations, footnotes, timeline, dramatis personae, ship directory, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxxvi,209/325. ISBN:978-1-61121-457-4. $32.95]

In April 1861, when Virginia state forces seized Portsmouth's Gosport Navy Yard (located just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk) significantly intact after a halfhearted U.S. effort at destruction, they came into possession of a mountain of useful materiel (including heavy ordnance, munitions, military provisions, and the partially burned steam frigate USS Merrimack). Using Gosport's invaluable drydock and other support facilities, Confederate authorities were able to construct or reconstruct a number of war vessels, their most significant achievement being their conversion of the damaged Merrimack hull into the feared ironclad ram CSS Virginia. Much has been written about the Virginia and her brief but epic career as a terror to Union blockading vessels and thorn in the side of any planned enemy movement up the James River, but the famous ironclad's Norfolk harbor base has received far less attention in the literature. With its fall deemed inevitable by the Army of the Potomac's advance up the Virginia Peninsula in early 1862, most authors only briefly dispense with Norfolk's abandonment and occupation before moving on to the bloody face off between the main armies in front of Richmond. Very frequently mentioned in books, but not typically elaborated upon, is President Abraham Lincoln's personal intervention in the planning of Norfolk's capture. Addressing that episode of Civil War history in expansive and original fashion is Steve Norder's Lincoln Takes Command: The Campaign to Seize Norfolk and the Destruction of the CSS Virginia.

In early May 1862, Lincoln and cabinet secretaries Chase, Stanton, and Welles embarked from Washington on a trip to Fort Monroe to see for themselves what progress was being made (or not made) on the Virginia Peninsula. Using a great variety of sources, Norder attempts in minute fashion to document all of Lincoln's activities during his eventful week-long stay there from May 5 to May 12. During that time, Lincoln acquainted himself with the military situation at Hampton Roads, interviewed the officers stationed there, reviewed troops and sailors, inspected facilities, and eagerly observed bombardments of the enemy shoreline. He also took a keen interest in potential Southside landing sites and eventually ordered the Fort Monroe/Hampton Roads army and navy commanders (General John Wool and Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, respectively) to cooperate in a combined operation aimed at capturing Norfolk.

Though clearly focused on Lincoln and Union army and navy affairs, the book does not neglect Confederate civilian and military perspectives of the events covered in the book. When General Joseph E. Johnston slipped out of his fortified Yorktown line on May 1 and retreated toward the capital, he informed Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall that Norfolk would have to be abandoned and the Virginia destroyed, if necessary. By May 3, the process of evacuating Norfolk was well underway.

Given that all the major military minds on both sides independently came to the conclusion that Norfolk would have to be evacuated once McClellan's army advanced up the Peninsula, it is legitimate to question the military propriety of an immediate amphibious movement against Norfolk. McClellan, who was confident the U.S. naval forces present at Hampton Roads could keep the Virginia in check, seemed content to not unnecessarily risk ships and men he hoped to use himself for the final drive on Richmond to attack a place that would fall on its own accord. Indeed, Norfolk and Portsmouth were already in the process of being evacuated before Lincoln embarked from Washington. Perhaps a better question is whether Lincoln's actions sped up events to the extent that the Confederates lost vital war-making resources they might otherwise have saved given a bit more time. The book doesn't really indicate that this might have been the case. There also doesn't seem to be much strong evidence to believe with any great confidence that a different time line could have allowed the Confederate Navy opportunity to lighten the Virginia enough for it to make it up the James River to safety. On the other hand, it was certainly reasonable on Lincoln's part to wish to secure sooner rather than later both the morale boost that the destruction of the Virginia would give to those who saw the Peninsula operation as stalled and the relief it would give to the many influential persons inside and outside the government who continued to greatly overestimate the ironclad's capabilities.

The event from the week that would most become a part of Lincoln lore occurred late on May 9, when the president personally accompanied a landing site reconnaissance mission and even joined a small detachment that briefly debarked on enemy shore to test a site's landing suitability. In retrospect, this impulsive evening foray seems like a highly foolish action for the President of the United States to have undertaken, especially when Confederate videttes were present at the location only moments earlier. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt among historians that the event happened. Though Norder cites three sources (a letter to daughter "Nettie" from Secretary Chase, a New York Times article dated 1874, and an account by Union army officer Egbert Viele), only one (Chase's letter) appears to have been written by an eyewitness to the dramatic affair. Perhaps other firsthand accounts exist cited elsewhere. In any case, the military planners at the time cited justifiable reasons for ultimately rejecting that site in favor of the one at Ocean View originally selected.

Union troops landed at Ocean View early on May 10. Lincoln witnessed the debarkation but did not go ashore with the troops, electing instead to return to Fort Monroe and await reports. The operation did not go completely according to plan, especially after the Confederates burned the bridge over Tanners Creek. However, Secretary Chase, who was present at the front, was able to resolve a dispute that arose between generals Wool and Mansfield in a way that allowed the march to resume with renewed purpose. Lincoln, who heard about the temporary snafu from Mansfield himself, arrived at the beach with Secretary Stanton late in the afternoon but returned to Fort Monroe after finding things at the front back on track. Against only token opposition, Wool occupied Norfolk that day. On the Confederate side, one big hitch emerged during the final stages of an otherwise smooth evacuation of the harbor. In an act of almost incredible omission, those on board the Virginia were not notified that the evacuation was completed and the naval base destroyed. With nowhere to turn and no time to try any other desperate measures aimed at decreasing its draft, the Virginia, with its now unprotected hull fully exposed by previous efforts at lightening the vessel, had to be immediately destroyed to preclude any possibility of capture.

Norder's final chapter, one of the book's best, details in fine fashion how Union occupying authorities struggled to sort through local allegiances and maintain security in Norfolk while also meeting the basic survival needs of a sizable population of 20,000. As was the case with other major commercial centers under Union occupation, it needed to be decided under what conditions trade and local business would be allowed to resume. How long Norfolk would continue to be covered by the North Atlantic naval blockade also had to be considered. The first military governor, General Wool, would take a hard line against the hostile majority of Norfolk residents (even to the level of being accused of trying to starve the population into submission), but his successor, General John Dix, relaxed many of his predecessor's restrictions. While this eased the suffering, other problems emerged. Controversy and corruption related to the issuing of trade permits was common throughout the occupied South, and it was no different at Norfolk. That topic and additional army-navy interservice clashes and treasury department conflicts are informatively discussed at some length by Norder.

In sum, Norder believes that the week "provided the foundation Abraham Lincoln needed to develop the confidence and vision he would need to fight the long war ahead and bring it to a successful end" (pg. 98). That claim of long-term insight into the evolution of Lincoln's strategic mind is impossible to assess with any kind of certainty, but there is some short-term support in the fact that Lincoln again directly intervened in military campaign planning mere weeks later. In that case, the end result of the president's redirection of potential Peninsula reinforcements into the Shenandoah Valley and his attempt to coordinate multiple columns aimed at destroying Stonewall Jackson there was dismal failure. Bringing in General Henry Halleck to Washington soon after to act as general in chief of the Union Army also might be seen as clouding the continuity of the author's claim, but Norder prefers to view Halleck's promotion as Lincoln sagely realizing his own limitations. Regardless of whether one believes the impact of the Norfolk operation on Lincoln's development as Commander in Chief to have been fleeting or long lasting, the book possesses many other strengths that clearly mark it as a work of considerable distinction. Amid all the popular and scholarly obsession over each day of Lincoln's life, it is impossible to imagine any other work matching this level of biographical detail in documenting Lincoln's activities during this particular week of May 1862. It is equally certain that the circumstances surrounding the capture of Norfolk have never before been examined at anything approaching this depth. In that sense, Lincoln Takes Command more than satisfactorily fills in one of the many remaining gaps in the Civil War literature's uneven coverage of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Booknotes: Organizing Freedom

New Arrival:
Organizing Freedom: Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest by Jennifer R. Harbour (SIU Press, 2020).

Jennifer Harbour's Organizing Freedom is a "social history of black emancipation activism in Indiana and Illinois during the Civil War era." Most Civil War readers are aware of how deeply unpopular both abolitionist sentiment and free black emigration was among residents of many parts of the lower Midwest, with the 1837 murder of Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois being the most commonly cited example of the most extreme public reaction to the former.

From the description: "Nevertheless, as Harbour shows, black Americans settled there, and in a liminal space between legal slavery and true freedom, they focused on their main goals: creating institutions like churches, schools, and police watches; establishing citizenship rights; arguing against oppressive laws in public and in print; and, later, supporting their communities throughout the Civil War."

Harbour's research is centered is on the emancipation efforts of black women during the war. More from the description: "Her distinct focus on what military service meant for the families of black Civil War soldiers elucidates how black women navigated life at home without a male breadwinner at the same time they began a new, public practice of emancipation activism. During the tumult of war, Midwestern black women negotiated relationships with local, state, and federal entities through the practices of philanthropy, mutual aid, religiosity, and refugee and soldier relief."

In the end, according to Harbour, "(a)s they worked through the sluggish, incremental process to achieve abolition and emancipation, Midwestern black activists created a unique regional identity."

Friday, June 12, 2020

Review - "The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies: 6 April 1862 - Vol I" & "7 April 1862 - Vol II" by Lanny Smith

[The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies - 6 April 1862 - Vol I by Lanny K. Smith (Author, 2018). Hardcover, 58 maps, notes, name index, unit index. Pages main/total:xii,597/704. ISBN:978-1-56837-444-4. $120 (for both volumes)]

A decade ago, Lanny Kelton Smith completed his publication of a two-volume history of the Stones River campaign and battle [The Stone's River Campaign: 26 December 1862 - 5 January 1863: The Union Army (2008) and The Stone's River Campaign: 26 December 1862 - 5 January 1863: Army of Tennessee (2010)]. Even more ambitious, Smith's newest battle history project is a planned four-volume examination of the Battle of Shiloh, with the first two installments The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies: 6 April 1862 - Vol I and 7 April 1862 - Vol II recently completed and a pair of Confederate companion volumes to follow sometime in the future. Though the Stones River books were well received by subject experts and enthusiasts alike, it should be mentioned straight away that Smith's books are not designed for general audience appeal. Both Stones River and Shiloh already have multiple popular treatments written along traditional lines, some being model battle studies that are great favorites among Civil War readers. Smith has alternatively assigned himself a very different task and focus, that of recounting the events of these battles from an incredibly comprehensive ground-level perspective at unprecedented levels of small-unit tactical detail. If anything, this unique quality is even more pronounced in the new Shiloh books.

Just to begin with an overview of the contents of Volume I, the first hundred pages are comprised of a fine summary of the origins of U.S. Grant's 'twin rivers' campaign through his army's establishment of forward posts at Crump's Landing and Pittsburg Landing. Covering the six days prior to the battle, the next section discusses at great length the layout of the Union camps and the various scouting expeditions conducted west of Crump's Landing and south of Pittsburg Landing. More than any other Shiloh study, Smith's intricate account of this period really shows how frequently and actively the pickets of both sides were in contact during the days preceding the battle. Lest this point be used to even further condemn the unpreparedness of the Union Army on the eve of Shiloh, it may perhaps be appropriate to remind potential critics that regular picket firing was not unusual whenever major armies were in close proximity to each other and no army can be on full alert indefinitely. The great middle of the book, around 400 pages of content, covers the Army of the Tennessee's conduct and experience of the April 6 battle (more on that below). A late chapter also discusses naval participation in the campaign and battle through the activities of the timberclads Lexington and Tyler. Starting on March 16, a pair of lengthy chapters recount the march of General Don Carlos Buell's army to the battlefield on a day-by-day basis. They discuss the arrival of the Army of the Ohio's advance elements and their reactions to what they saw while also plotting in great detail the staging positions taken by each unit on the combined army's left for the next day's dawn assault. Finally, Grant's personal activities are traced in the book's last chapter. In it, some emphasis is placed on the Wallace controversy and questions regarding the veracity of Grant's later claim to have been everywhere on the field giving orders subsequent to his mid-battle arrival by boat from Savannah.

Unlike the major single-volume works (among them books by Wiley Sword, James McDonough, Larry Daniel, Edward Cunningham, and Timothy Smith) that cover the fighting in flowing narrative fashion, Lanny Smith's battle history is comprehensively displayed in distinct stages through a methodically-arranged series of hierarchical subsections based upon the Union order of battle. From top to bottom, sections start with the division and flow downward through each and every assigned brigade, regiment, and artillery battery). Unbrigaded cavalry battalions and independent companies are not forgotten in the process. There are even standalone sections detailing the personal movements and activities of the commanding officer of each division, brigade, and regiment. For the three divisions that experienced the longest sustained fighting of the day (Sherman's, McClernand's, and Prentiss's), these treatments are divided further into early morning and late morning/afternoon phases. The main battle section also includes a fairly exhaustive rundown of Col. Webster's arrangement of artillery in Grant's "Final Line." It would be difficult to overstate the volume and density of descriptive detail present in all of these parts. More will be said about the bibliography in the review of Volume II (see below), but from the notes it is clear that the text is O.R.-based and richly enhanced through skillful integration of many firsthand accounts written by participants of all ranks. Thankfully, Smith is more judicious than many other authors in his use (but not overuse) of block quotes.

The book's unusual but effective format is highly conducive to giving readers the unprecedented ability to follow with relative ease the movements and fighting activities of every component of Grant's army from dawn to dusk on April 6. This is just not possible using the traditional way of rendering battle history. In even the best narrative histories, through space limitations or any number of other practical reasons, a multitude of units get only abbreviated coverage, mere mention, or are not referenced at all. Using his own method, units that Smith feels have never been properly credited for their part in the battle (ex. the 15th and 16th Iowa) get full treatment. Of course, this ground-level focus risks distorting reader perception of the overall flow of the battle, and no one would recommend this style of book as a reader's very first exposure to the topic. Indeed, the audience group really capable of appreciating Smith's books for what they are is probably rather sharply limited to those already steeped in the Shiloh literature (or at the very least possessing a passing familiarity with the major secondary works).

While the material quality of the volumes is high and their overall presentation appealing, they do exhibit some of the common problems associated with self-publishing. The author's framing of events in nested-org fashion, combined with the fact that units from other divisions frequently intermixed on the firing line, means there's a great deal of content repetition throughout the volume. Some of this is native to the chosen format and unavoidable in that way, but a ruthless outside editor might have been able to apply some beneficial trimming while at the same time fixing up the text's pervasive typographical errors.

The book's 58 maps are hand-drawn at various scales and are stylistically similar to those found in Smith's other books. They are generally well integrated with nearby text and display most of the features that readers expect and want from maps tasked with showing complex military events (though a more standardized compass orientation would have helped).

The author's assessments of Union generals are a solid mixture of deference to established views and his own judicious interpretations. For example, Smith's discussion of the Lew Wallace controversy is in line with many of the learned opinions expressed in recent scholarship from Gail Stephens, Charles Beemer, and Christopher Mortenson (particularly the first two). Like those authors and others who have weighed in on the matter, Smith rejects the idea that Wallace got lost on the wrong road and marched inordinately slow, but he also appreciates that Wallace's decision to break for supper and his reversing his division's order of march in the most time-consuming manner possible are choices that still leave the prickly political general open to some level of criticism. While all of Grant's divisions were eventually driven back in varying degrees of disorder, the author convincingly singles out General McClernand's (1) generous support of his fellow commanders on either flank, (2) his key role in the midday counterattack in the center that historians Cunningham and Smith cite as one of the most underappreciated aspects of the first day's fighting, and (3) his generally well-managed withdrawal throughout the day as providing ample support for concluding that the much-maligned political general's overall performance on April 6 was "equal to or better" than that of any of this division-leading colleagues (including Sherman).

At least so far, the author does not appear to be deeply wedded to any of the major schools of thought assigning primacy to particular Shiloh battlefield events and moments (ex. the Hornet's Nest fighting). If anything, Smith probably aligns himself closest with the ongoing "revisionist school" said to have its origins in Cunningham's work in the 1960s. There are other April 6 controversies and issues of contention, among them General Beauregard's decision to not launch a final assault late in the day and the effect that Albert Sidney Johnston's death had on Confederate momentum, that will presumably be addressed in the remaining volumes.


[The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies - 7 April 1862 - Vol II by Lanny K. Smith (Author, 2019). Hardcover, 21 maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, name index, unit index. Pages main/total:258/653. ISBN:978-1-56837-444-4]

Volume II begins with the renewal of fighting during the morning hours of April 7, when Grant was determined to strike first with the assistance of the advance elements of Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio. The forward movement of Grant's Army of the Tennessee is recounted first, with the action unfolding from right to left (Lew Wallace's Third Division on the far right, then William Sherman's Fifth Division, John McClernand's First Division, Stephen Hurlbut's Fourth Division, W.H.L. Wallace's Third Division, and finally Benjamin Prentiss's Sixth Division). With W.H.L. Wallace mortally wounded on the 6th, Col. James Tuttle temporarily led the attacking elements of Third Division while the Hornet's Net survivors of Sixth Division capable of renewing the fight were under the command of Col. Francis Quinn.

With the Confederates having pulled back (much too far according to most historians) from their high-water marks of the previous day attack, it took a while before Grant's Army of the Tennessee struck solid resistance. Though fighting was fierce along the entire line for several hours, local counterattacks launched by the stubborn but overmatched Confederates were only able to delay the inevitable. By the middle of the afternoon, the Confederate army broke contact and withdrew south toward Corinth.

At the beginning of the day, Lew Wallace's division was the only fresh command in Grant's army, and his performance on the 7th has historically been criticized as dilatory. In recent years, however, this interpretation has been effectively challenged in the literature by both Wallace biographers and Shiloh historians who credit Wallace for repeatedly turning the Confederate left and doing much to unhinge the enemy line while also avoiding the high casualties that typically accompany mass frontal attacks. Smith's assessment of Wallace is broadly aligned with the new school, and he convincingly grades Wallace's methodical yet effective handling of his command on April 7 as "equal to or superior" to that of his fellow division commanders.

Buell's battle line, which initially consisted of William "Bull" Nelson's Fourth Division placed just in front of Grant's extreme left flank, was expanded during the battle with arriving divisions (first Thomas Crittenden's Fifth Division then Alexander McCook's Second Division) extending the Army of the Ohio's right until a loose connection with Grant's advancing left was made. Thomas Wood's Sixth Division arrived last and saw little action, with only one brigade lightly engaged. Primarily concerned with describing events, Smith leaves it to others to argue over whether Grant was "rescued" by Buell or could have won the battle without Buell's reinforcements.

Grant did not immediately pursue the withdrawing enemy on the afternoon of the 7th, electing instead to enlist Buell's aid in assembling for the following day a combined arms strike force to harry the Confederate rear. Smith ends the book with a discussion of this final phase of the campaign, recounting the April 8 fighting at Fallen Timbers (but including no map).

As mentioned before, Smith is primarily interested in documenting the placement and activities of every unit that fought in the battle, so sifting through interpretive differences offered through the modern secondary literature is present in places but of lesser concern overall. Indeed, the bibliography is highly selective toward contemporary sources, including O.R. reports, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, early unit histories, state records, and the like.

The massive appendix section fills more than half the volume. In addition to order of battle and casualty tables, there are officer biography sketches, strength tables, and pre-Shiloh service histories for all the units. Armament compositions of the artillery batteries are duly noted, but that is only a scattered feature of the infantry coverage.

In the end, the existing collection of fine modern Shiloh histories from Timothy Smith, Wiley Sword, Larry Daniel, and others will more than suffice in suiting the purposes of the great majority of Civil War students, but those with the most profound research interests in the battle will find the considerable time and financial investment necessary in acquiring and reading these two volumes well worthwhile.


Click here for ordering information.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Booknotes: Till Death Do Us Part

New Arrival:
Till Death Do Us Part: The Letters of Emory and Emily Upton, 1868–1870 edited by Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr. (OU Press, 2020).

From the description: "Major General Emory Upton (1839–1881) served in all three branches of the U.S. military during the American Civil War. Lauded as a war hero, he later earned acclaim for his influence on military reforms, which lasted well beyond his lifetime." With three recent books already under his belt, a history of the regiment that Upton led for much of the war Upton's Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War and two volumes of Upton correspondence (Vol. 1, 1857–1875 and Vol. 2, 1875–1881), Salvatore Cilella's well-received scholarship has become closely associated with the Upton historiography. But he's not done yet. Cilella's new book Till Death Do Us Part: The Letters of Emory and Emily Upton, 1868–1870 "unveils the private life of a brilliant Civil War personality. It also introduces readers to the devout young woman" [Emily Norwood Martin (1846–1870)] "who earned the general’s fanatic devotion before her untimely death from tuberculosis."

According to Cilella, of the around 500 Upton letters that are housed in archives around the country, more than 60 were written to his wife from late 1868 to early 1869. With the purpose of publishing the latter group separately in this volume, the marriage letters were intentionally left out of the earlier volumes of correspondence. Sadly, only Upton's side of the letter exchange has survived. In an attempt to address the gap, Cilella "was able to draw on the rich trove of letters Emily wrote to her mother and father while on her honeymoon and during her stays in Key West, Nassau, and Atlanta. Together, both sets of letters form a poignant narrative of the general’s tender love for his new wife and her reciprocal affection as they attempted to create a normal life together despite her declining health." The collection also "gives readers a fascinating glimpse into gender roles and marital relations in the nineteenth century."

With Emily acquiring her terminal illness early in the marriage, their union was a tragically brief one lasting only two years. "The life of an army wife could be grueling, and despite her declining health, Emily longed to perform the role expected of her. It was not meant to be. Unwittingly, she and Emory chose the worst places for her to recover—Key West and Nassau—where the high humidity and heat must have exacerbated her difficulty breathing. She died in Nassau, far away from her husband. Eleven years later, racked by a sinus tumor and likely still grieving from his lost love, Upton committed suicide at the age of forty-one."

Drawing upon his extensive Upton research, Cilella extensively annotates the letter collection and bookends the volume with informative introduction and epilogue sections. The introduction recounts the pair's marriage and army life together while the epilogue addresses the aftermath of Emily's passing along with the balance of Upton's military career and his suicide. An Emory and Emily Upton marriage timeline is included as an appendix.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Booknotes: Andersonville Raiders

New Arrival:
Andersonville Raiders: Yankee Versus Yankee in the Civil War’s Most Notorious Prison Camp by Gary Morgan (Stackpole, 2020).

From the description: "It was the most witnessed execution in US history. On the evening of July 11, 1864, six men were marched into Andersonville Prison, surrounded by a cordon of guards, the prison commandant, and a Roman Catholic priest. The six men were handed over to a small execution squad, and while more than 26,000 Union prisoners looked on, the six were executed by hanging. The six, part of a larger group known as the Raiders, were killed, not by their Rebel enemies but by their fellow prisoners, for the crimes of robbing and assaulting their own comrades." Even if they haven't read any book-length studies of Andersonville, most Civil War enthusiasts will have at least some level of recognition of the episode from their more general reading, and many will remember it vividly as the major focus of the cable television miniseries Andersonville that first aired in 1996.

However, Gary Morgan, who has extensively researched the Andersonville Raiders and their hanging, has come to the conclusion that much of the traditional recounting of events is false. Along the way, Morgan's book Andersonville Raiders: Yankee Versus Yankee in the Civil War’s Most Notorious Prison Camp reexamines many key questions, including "Who were these six men? Were they really guilty of the crimes they were accused of? Were they really, as some prisoners alleged, murderers? What role did their Confederate captors play in their trial and execution?" and "What brought about their downfall?"

More: "Relying on military records, diaries, memoirs written within five years of the prison closing, and the recently discovered trial transcript, author Gary Morgan has discovered a version of events that is markedly different from the version told in later day “memoirs” and repeated in the history books. Here, for the first time in a century and a half, is the real story of the Andersonville Raiders."

Morgan's book is not a narrative history of the Raiders, their trial, and their execution. Instead, the bulk of the book consists of the author's extensive profiles and investigations of the condemned men, with standalone chapters assigned to each convicted raider [Patrick Delany, "Curtis," William Collins, J. Sarsfield, "Rickson," and "Munn"]. As one can see, even the identities of some of the men are not straightforward. Among other topics (such John McElroy's well-known Andersonville book published in 1879), the book also discusses the cases of other "raiders" who have been identified (or misidentified) through various sources. The story of the man [John Urban, a.k.a. "Dowd"] whose severe beating proved to be the tipping point in finally deciding to put an end to raider crimes is featured as well. The appendix section includes the aforementioned trial transcript, an anthology of relevant selections from published Andersonville diaries and memoirs, and the text of a December 1864 post-exchange New York Times interview with execution organizer Leroy Key.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Booknotes: The Desperate Struggle

New Arrival:
The Desperate Struggle: Louisiana Civil War Compendium - A Military History of Campaigns & Battles 1861-1865 by Henry O. Robertson (Author, 2020).

From the description: "This book is a guide for the major Civil War campaigns and battles in Louisiana, 1861-1865. The Trans-Mississippi Theater of the Civil War has drawn plenty of attention from scholars who have studied the campaigns and battles that took place in Missouri, Arkansas, and the coastal expeditions against Texas. The historians who have studied the campaigns in Louisiana, one of the southern most of the Trans-Mississippi locations, are a numerous and a tenacious group. Until now, however, the last work to cover the war in the whole state, rather than single campaigns or battles, was published in 1963 [John D. Winters's classic The Civil War in Louisiana]."

More: "This guide uses a state regional approach to understanding the conduct of the war." The book is not a touring guide per se, but lists of places to visit (with location info, website URL where applicable, and some commentary) are inserted at various places. "The Mississippi River and the many other waterways played a great role in the clash between Confederates and Union forces. The city of New Orleans, the large number of slaves, plain folk farms across the hill country, and both sugar and cotton plantations provided a very different backdrop for war here. Along with the terrain, leadership and command decisions made the difference between victory or defeat. This compendium guide is excellent for taking along on visits to find Louisiana's lost battlegrounds."

In writing this book, Louisiana College history professor Henry Robertson's stated purpose is to "give the general reader a regional compendium of the Civil War campaigns in Louisiana." Common to works of this type, new research is not the order of the day in The Desperate Struggle, so the bibliography primarily consists of a selection of notable published sources. In a nod to the target audience, there are no footnotes. The volume is illustrated with both B&W and color images and maps (the latter mostly consisting of reproductions from the public domain).

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Author Q&A: Eric Faust on "The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War"

Eric R. Faust is the author of three books exploring the state of Michigan's contributions to the Union war effort. Conspicuous Gallantry: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of James W. King, 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry was published in 2015 as part of Kent State University Press's Civil War in the North series, and his first regimental study, The 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster , was released that same year by McFarland. Also from McFarland, Faust's most recent book, The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster, was published back in March and is the topic of this interview.

CWBA: Thank you for joining us, Eric. You’ve now authored three Civil War books, all Michigan related. What inspired your particular interest in the 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment?

EF: It was a happy accident. My first book, Conspicuous Gallantry, presented the letters of a soldier in the 11th Michigan, James W. King. King’s future father-in-law, Darius Ambrose Babcock, enlisted as a private in the 6th Michigan late in the war, so I looked into his service. He was injured in a train wreck immediately after departing Michigan and served as an officer’s cook before being discharged for disability. Nothing too exciting, but that research brought out tantalizing hints that the 6th Regiment possessed a fascinating, and largely untold, story. Even by volunteer standards, they were a poorly behaved bunch, yet you sure wouldn’t want to face them on a battlefield. There was no way I could walk away from that—their story was begging for a book-length treatment.

CWBA: What do you enjoy most about researching and writing regimental histories?

EF: Unit histories offer the best of both worlds. Like campaign and battle studies, they narrate the sweeping scope of major historical events. At the same time, like biographies and published letter collections, they reveal the daily lives and inner thoughts of individual soldiers. By the end of a good regimental you’ve gotten to know several soldiers so well that they are old friends (or enemies) by the time you turn the last page. The regiment was the infantryman’s whole world, and these histories bring us closer to understanding daily life in the armies as well as what the war really meant in the eyes of those who fought it. And it never gets old, because that answer is different for every unit, every soldier. As a researcher and writer, I enjoy watching these stories unfold and observing (and sometimes reconciling) how men who witnessed the exact same events often perceived them very differently. I also find it rewarding to stumble across all kinds of interesting little incidents that would never make it into books on broader topics.

CWBA: Tell us about the early-war period of the 6th’s Civil War service in Maryland and the Eastern Shore of Virginia?

EF: The 6th Michigan started out attached to the Army of the Potomac and was stationed in Baltimore. The Michiganders and Marylanders were on surprisingly friendly terms. There was tension here and there to be sure, but the soldiers, by and large, were on their best behavior. And they were showered with kindnesses in return: one captain, for example, received seven invitations for Christmas dinner, and many of the men courted, and in some cases later married, local women. The citizens even petitioned the War Department to keep the 6th stationed there. But all of that proved so deceptive. The instant those same troops crossed the border into Virginia for the first time in November 1861, they exhibited two defining traits: first, an insatiable appetite for foraging (which would evolve into remorseless pillaging), and second, a seething, open defiance of their brigadier, which would only worsen under subsequent general officers.

The Eastern Shore expedition foreshadowed the Michiganders’ service along the Mississippi. First, Curtenius was unavailable (on court-martial duty), so the unit marched out under Major Bacon’s command. Bacon was incapable of managing his men, and discipline collapsed in enemy territory. Next, the expedition’s commanding officer, Brigadier General Henry Lockwood, was operating under orders from John Dix to treat Confederate civilians and their rights to property (human or otherwise) with respect, and that did not sit well with the Michiganders. When they encamped in enemy territory for the first time, one officer reported, “for miles around camp could be heard all night long, the squealing of pigs, squawking of geese, cackling of hens, and all kinds of noises.” This expedition was characterized by hard marching and no fighting, a combination that bred discontent. The climax came when Lockwood confronted the entire regiment in a rage over a stolen turkey. As he departed, according to one private, “the boys forgot all military discipline for the moment, and such cheers and imitating of the fowl captured I never heard; they fairly gobbled him out of camp, and the… general retired, baffled and discomfited, pouring out vile epithets upon the Michigan men.” Bacon later testified against Lockwood before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, effectively accusing him of treason for following Dix’s orders. This was a recurring theme with Bacon—lividly attacking the reputation of any superior officer who criticized or opposed him. He should have been more worried about himself: his own subordinates “came home tittering over the frivolity and lack of executive ability exhibited by Major Bacon.” Things got back to normal, though, once the men were back in Baltimore under Colonel Curtenius. That made it easy to blame everything on Bacon, but it wasn’t that simple.

CWBA: Serious discipline problems seem to be a common theme wherever the regiment went. As far as you can tell, what was the source of it, and how much blame do you lay at the feet of the officers (including Col. Curtenius, Lt. Col. Clark and Maj. Bacon)?

EF: Clark and Bacon were disciplinary disasters, but Colonel Curtenius was competent and respected. His enforcement was lax at times, typical for a volunteer officer, but he could step up when the situation called for it. For example, he unhesitatingly threw several men in the stockade for refusing to drill in protest of noncom pay rates. But the colonel was getting on in years, and his health failed him by the time the unit engaged in active operations. That raises the big 'what if' in this regiment’s history, because his successors failed their subordinates miserably. Clark was a drunkard and a shameless profiteer; Bacon was incapable not only of showing deference to superiors but also of performing a field officer’s command duties. He is a fascinating case. He authored an entire book covering the period from Baton Rouge to Port Hudson—less than one year—and that entire effort amounts to a thinly veiled smear campaign against his superiors, particularly targeting three officers who had him arrested on separate occasions. He was court-martialed twice and ultimately dismissed from the service. Bacon held so little regard for the truth that his book constitutes a minefield for historians because it is fascinating, well-written, and contains juicy gossip and useful information, yet it is also chock full of lies, both blatant and subtle. With all that being said, two different things had to happen for this unit’s demeanor to falter: first, Curtenius sickened and eventually resigned, leaving two lesser men in command; and second, a perfect storm of epidemics, logistical failures, guerrilla warfare, profiteering, and all the stresses incidental to active operations served as a catalyst to degrade morale and bring out the worst in everyone. This unit was ravaged by disease along the mosquito-infested Mississippi, losing a shocking 500 dead to sickness alone—far and away the record for any Michigan unit in the war.

CWBA: Sounds like their repeated flaunting of army regulations might also have extended to camp sanitation! Many Civil War volunteer units that played hell in camp and on the march redeemed themselves on the battlefield. Was this the case for the 6th Michigan at the Battle of Baton Rouge?

EF: Undeniably. One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of that phenomenon than what transpired with this regiment over just a two-month span in mid-1862. The 6th clashed with Brigadier General Thomas Williams, taunting him mercilessly at every opportunity. He was a regular army martinet if ever there was one, and he was disgusted with the regiment’s taste for plunder, so they were playing with fire. Sure enough, things got ugly fast. As punishment, Williams ordered the regiment out of its comfortable barracks in Baton Rouge to bivouac exposed to the debilitating Louisiana summer. Tents were available, yet they weren’t allowed to use them. Everyone knew this could only result in sickness and death. Curtenius was gone by then, and Clark, Bacon, and the two senior captains were all arrested, one after another, for disobeying the order to expose the men. This happened just prior to the Battle of Baton Rouge, so thanks to Williams the 6th Michigan entered a desperate fight in a sickly state and under the command of a captain who, until recently, was seventh in command. To make matters worse, Williams declined to fortify and arrayed his regiments outside of immediate supporting distance from each other. Those blunders put the Federals at a dire disadvantage. Then, at the outset of the fight, he split the already shorthanded 6th Michigan in the face of the enemy. With two companies already out on picket duty, he diverted one battalion of five companies to support the 21st Indiana, leaving just 3 isolated companies to hold the right flank.

The great irony here is that the arrests of Clark and Bacon—who would later prove themselves of highly dubious value under fire—enabled the regiment’s two finest captains to show their mettle and save the day. Each of them literally battled Confederate regiments with Union companies. Harrison Soule’s company foiled a flanking maneuver by the 6th Kentucky at Magnolia Cemetery, employing the bayonet. They endured 60 percent casualties, including Soule himself, and even then they withdrew only when ordered to do so. And John Corden routed Henry Watkins Allen’s brigade with those three aforementioned companies on the far right. The balance of the battalion at the cemetery (4 companies) fended off an entire brigade to hold the center.

Heroics like these would be famous if they had taken place in one of the big battles out east, and bear in mind that the 6th had never seen combat before. The rest of the brigade recognized all that: Sidney Bean of the 4th Wisconsin prefaced his comments on Corden’s performance with, “However incredible it may seem.” As the story goes, General Williams, the Michiganders’ greatest critic, was moved during the battle to say, “I wish to God I had ten thousand of you western thieves!” Whatever the truth of that, sources from multiple regiments assert that he was stunned to see his indisciplined volunteers fight tenaciously, and he complimented their courage profusely. High praise from a man who’d recently said he preferred conscripts to volunteers.

CWBA: Regimental histories are often useful vehicles for exploring obscure events that occurred behind the lines or on secondary fighting fronts. Can you talk about some little-known episodes of the 6th’s service in the West?

EF: Where to begin? I will pick out some highlights. Colonel Curtenius clashed with General Williams over the latter’s insistence that slaves should not be harbored from their masters. The Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves was passed and integrated into the Articles of War by then, yet Williams ordered the refugees expelled from the Union lines after one master demanded the 6th Michigan return his slave. Curtenius was arrested for his refusal, and then released hours later without comment or personal consequence. Williams would expel all the contrabands after Curtenius resigned—there was nobody left with the will and wherewithal to protect them.

Near Ponchatoula, the regiment once skirmished with Choctaws in the swamp and captured several. One captain quoted his comrades saying “there will be some civilization taught them,” though that seems to have been an idle threat. Illustrating the intensely personal scale on which the war was fought at times along the Mississippi, the first fatal fire the 6th Regiment ever took was from an irate plantation owner—on a rare occasion where the Michiganders actually intended to pay for farm goods. And the 6th once escaped a potential rout thanks to a delaying action fought by just eight soldiers who braved a concentrated assault while comrades skedaddled around them.

River travel was hazardous: the regiment’s transports drew artillery fire on four occasions, twice inflicting fatalities. It was traumatic to come under attack with little or no means to respond—they nearly capsized one vessel by herding to the port side when they came under fire from the starboard. After the second such assault, the regiment and its counterparts disembarked and pillaged the town from which they came under fire (Grand Gulf, Mississippi)—just one example where civilians paid the price when troops were frustrated by guerrilla tactics. Clark once squandered an important local naval asset, the partially ironclad gunboat Barataria, by apparently taking it to seek plunder while the ship’s commanding officer was absent. The vessel ran aground and was abandoned in response to an attack by a few dismounted cavalry [Now there’s an interesting trivia question: how many Union naval vessels were lost to cavalry actions?].

On one larger expedition, almost the entire regiment left the line of march to forage. “One could scarcely tell what place the 6th Michigan occupied in the line,” wrote one soldier, “there was a color bearer and a few commissioned officers." In March 1863 John C. Pemberton sent a message via the 6th Michigan to Nathaniel Banks, offering to trade cotton with the Department of the Gulf. I found no evidence that this gained any traction, but it was surely an eye-opening proposition that late in the war. The department suffered systemic logistical issues—the kind you normally associate with the Confederate army—and the Michiganders marched at times in bare feet, went hungry, drank infested swamp water, and so on. This is all just a sampling, but the experiences of isolated units often differed starkly from life in the larger armies out east.

CWBA: In summer 1863, the regiment found itself in the trench lines at Port Hudson. How did it fare there?

EF: Port Hudson was an unmitigated nightmare for the 6th. Nathaniel Banks was the worst kind of political general. He had no business leading an army, and half his force was comprised of nine-months men who, as one Michigander put it, “cannot tell the difference between an Enfield rifle and a ten-inch siege gun." The 6th went straight from having zero experience assaulting fortifications to joining in the longest siege in American history up to that point and participated in hopeless charges supported only by raw troops. The regiment went into Port Hudson with capable brigade and division commanders for a change (and even got along with them), but Generals Neal Dow and Thomas W. Sherman were both wounded straight away in the first assault on May 27, 1863. The Michiganders entered that engagement with 450 men and officers. By July 4, they could muster a mere 160 present for duty (they’d lost about one-third killed or wounded and another third to disease in the muck of the trenches). Corden, on Independence Day, was the sole officer present above the rank of lieutenant. After May 27, division command devolved to William Dwight, a rigid disciplinarian and heavy drinker (love that combination) already infamous for using volunteers as cannon fodder. Even Corden and Soule, heroes of Baton Rouge, refused to implement suicidal attack orders on separate occasions. Dwight went on to devise multiple schemes where a few soldiers were supposed to sneak into the Rebel fortifications under cover of darkness and somehow engineer the doom of an entire Confederate army. (Thirty thousand men couldn’t do it. Let’s try thirty instead.) Some of the 6th Michigan’s finest rank-and-file boys were shot dead in the dark following alcohol-inspired orders—and only days shy of surviving the last of their unit’s active combat operations.

CWBA: Interestingly, all of the regiments in Gen. Thomas Williams’s original brigade at Ship Island (21st Indiana, 4th Wisconsin, and 6th Michigan) were later converted to a different service branch (the 4th to the cavalry, and the 21st and 6th to the heavy artillery). At least for the 6th Michigan, what was the rationale behind the change?

EF: These conversions became almost commonplace for experienced infantry in the Department of the Gulf. I assume Halleck prioritized the main battlefield armies when it came to requests for cavalry and artillery, and this was the workaround. I’ve seen no official explanation for the 6th’s conversion. The men considered it a reward for meritorious service at Port Hudson, but that may have been wishful thinking. The soldiers knew it would mean a lot of garrison duty and considered it cause for celebration because, as Corden put it, “we shall have an easier time of it, and not near the exposure to all kinds of weather and hard marching and fighting we have had to endure as infantry.” Conversion from infantry did not guarantee that the Michiganders wouldn’t have their old rifles shoved back in their hands and be told to play infantryman now and again. “We have been artillery,” one officer joked, “then infantry [again], the engineer corps now, and next I think we will be the Invalid Corps or Corps d’Afrique.” In any event, the move to artillery signaled a virtual end to active operations for the 6th Michigan in July 1863, although they wouldn’t muster out until August 1865. This period was so uneventful that I summarized it in the final chapter, emphasizing the highlights (some of which are amusing—bored volunteers do the darnedest things). In the doldrums of camp life, discipline grew so lax that one late-war inspection report makes the regiment sound like something out of an episode of F Troop. It makes for hilarious reading now but probably not so much at the time. The unit almost mutinied four months after Appomattox, impatient from awaiting orders to return home.

CWBA: What’s next for you? Do you have more Michigan regimental studies in the pipeline?

EF: I am serving on the oversight committee for a lengthy documentary film about the 11th Michigan Infantry (the subject of my first two books). I haven’t settled on my next book topic yet, though I’ve been kicking some ideas around. It is likely I will author another regimental at some point—Michigan or not—and I have come across a letter collection or two I’d like to publish. I also hope at some point to research a lesser-known battle. There are always a hundred things I’d like to be doing, and never enough hours in a day. While pondering what’s next, I’ve been writing a novel of the Reconstruction period.

CWBA: Thanks again for your time, Eric. Our talk has made me look forward to reading your book even more. And readers, once again the title is The 6th Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Review - "Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song" by Chris Mackowski, ed.

[Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song edited by Chris Mackowski (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Paperback, photos, figures, notes, index. Pp. 272. ISBN:978-0-8093-3757-6. $26.50]

The American Civil War's hold on popular culture and imagination has always waxed and waned. Its arts and entertainment coverage is also qualitatively inconsistent across various media types. While the non-fiction literature is rich almost beyond belief, success in other media categories (particularly novels and films) has been fleeting at best. It has been argued by many literary critics that Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage remains the only truly great Civil War novel. If one's standards remain high, it might also be maintained that only a handful of good, let alone great, Civil War movies have been produced through major motion picture studios, television, and independent filmmaking. However, timing or any of a number of other factors can make up for sheer numbers, and the Civil War has certainly had, in terms of popular cultural awareness through various media outlets, its time in the sun on multiple occasions. The new edited anthology Entertaining History: The Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song contains a highly eclectic collection of perspectives on many notable examples of Civil War education and entertainment through novels, short stories, mail order book series, movies, television programs, music, and theater.

Entertaining History, part of SIU Press's relatively new Engaging the Civil War series and edited by Chris Mackowski, is a wide-ranging anthology of twenty-five essays and perspectives/retrospectives. In content, presentation, and style they represent many different approaches, from formal scholarly articles to more informal testimonial-type pieces written in first person. Though thematically arranged under the three broad media categories of literature, film, and song, the chapters are so numerous and topically diverse that this discussion will not be a review of the entire anthology but rather a look at a trio of selections that will hopefully offer prospective readers at least some idea of what to expect.

As a admirer of both Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane, I enjoyed Amelia Ann and Chris Mackowski's discourse on the cultural impact of both writers. There was a time when nearly every student in U.S. public education read Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" sometime during middle or high school. The two authors were often linked together during their lifetimes, too, which annoyed the older Bierce, a Civil War veteran who wasn't shy about publicly denigrating the much younger Crane. Through interviews with historians and literary scholars, the Mackowski's effectively argue for the continued relevance of both writers in the face of their unfortunate fading from reading lists. Unquestionably, the fiction of Bierce and Crane—which combines high-level dramatic and psychological sophistication with brevity and broad accessibility—offers students of any generation (most of whom will never read a non-fiction Civil War book of any kind once they leave school) an uncommonly authentic portrait of the conflict's 'face of battle.'

Meg Groeling's tribute to the 28-volume Time-Life: The Civil War series published from 1983 to 1987 mirrors many of my own thoughts about it. Civil War enthusiasts of an older generation often cite books like The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War as germinal influences, but I can trace the early-teen transfer of my own military history allegiance from the Napoleonic Wars and WW2 to the American Civil War in large part to the metallic-gray hardcover volumes from Time-Life. Groeling's brief chapter offers a nice capsule history of the series and how the books were produced through the combined efforts of staff writers, contract authors, and an army of researchers (one of the tasks of the last being to scour the country's public and private archives for images). Much of the text is probably pretty dated by now (and one of Groeling's interview subjects is surely correct in opining that topical emphasis and range would be very different if the series was produced today), but the visual elements created for the series still hold up well. The maps were some of the best of the period, but for me it's the amazing presentation of period photographs, artwork, and other illustrations tracked down by the Time-Life crew that keeps the bulky series on my bookshelf.

Finally, no retrospective of Ken Burns's ten-part documentary The Civil War would be complete without some special mention of Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell," the haunting lament played by his string group Fiddle Fever that would occupy nearly a full hour of series audio time and earn Ungar an Emmy nomination. After noting the irony that the most memorable contribution to a Grammy-winning Civil War soundtrack was its sole non-period piece ("Ashokan Farewell" was composed by Ungar in the early 1980s), essay writer Dan Welch, using some older interviews with Ungar, briefly reconstructs the story behind its origins and creation. Significantly, Welch also credits "Ashokan Farewell" for having "revolutionized musical scores for period pieces on the Civil War" (pg. 223). Just as Burns changed the way historical documentaries were produced, the distinctive violin-led string sound of Ungar's creation influenced a great number of Civil War movie soundtracks and popular songs.

Those three chapters provide just a small taste of what is a thoroughly engaging exploration of the popularization of the Civil War in song and on page and screen. Recommended.